"[T]he very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships."
—Physicist Paul Davies, in the New York Times
"All scientists — including agnostics and atheists — believe in God." So says philosopher and theologian Vern Poythress. Why would he say such a thing? Because he believes that all scientists in practice assume the existence of something remarkably similar to God — namely, the so-called "laws of nature."
You've probably noticed that the universe functions with sublime regularity. The Sun rises every morning, the Moon waxes and wanes each month, the seasons proceed in predictable fashion. Every natural phenomenon in the universe seems to occur according to discernible patterns. The fact that you are reading this blog right now is a testimony to innumerable regularities — things like electromagnetism, gravity, and so forth. This constant regularity cries out for explanation.
It can't be merely a grand coincidence that the universe is so orderly. Surely there is some reason why it is this way. The answer most scientists (and regular folk) give to this question is simple: the laws of nature. "The universe is governed by laws," they would say, "that's what makes it so orderly." I think that's a perfectly respectable answer. I also happen to think that answer points to God's existence.
Laws of Nature
Reflect for a moment on what the laws of nature must be like (if they exist). If we could describe them, what qualities do they have? For example, the laws aren't physical things. Rather, they determine (or describe) how physical things behave. So the laws of nature must be non-physical. Moreover, scientists and philosophers agree the laws are present at all times and all places in the universe. There is no corner of the cosmos, and no time in history, where they don't apply (with the possible exception of the "Planck era"). In a sense we could say the laws are omnipresent (being at all places) and eternal (being at all times). Are you seeing a pattern here? When we reflect further, we find that the laws of nature have many qualities that are usually considered attributes of God. Poythress explains:
If a law holds for all times, we presuppose that it is the same law through all times. The law does not change with time. It is immutable. The very concept of scientific law presupposes immutability [an attribute of God]. Next, laws are at bottom ideational in character. We do not literally see a law, but only the effects of the law on the material world. The law is essentially immaterial and invisible… Likewise, God is essentially immaterial and invisible… Real laws, as opposed to scientists’ approximations of them, are also absolutely, infallibly true. Truthfulness [infallibility] is also an attribute of God… Next consider the attribute of power. A law or regularity must hold for a whole series of cases…If [laws] are truly universal, they are not violated. No event escapes their “hold” or dominion. The power of these real laws is absolute, in fact, infinite. In classical language, the law is omnipotent (“all powerful”).
If as Poythress claims, doing science involves assuming the existence of laws that are immaterial, invisible, eternal, immutable, infallible, omnipresent, omnipotent, and transcendent, then why is it irrational to believe in a God with the same qualities? It isn't. Theists have traditionally identified the laws of nature as God himself — the Logos — the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, which holds all things together. Given how theologically charged the very idea of "laws of nature" is — an idea nearly every scientist accepts — it is more than reasonable to believe in God as their source.
Where do the laws come from?
A fascinating article in the New York Times, titled "Laws of Nature, Source Unknown," describes the beliefs of a number of different physicists (many of them atheists or agnostics) regarding the laws of nature. In the article are statements like:
- "If the laws of physics are to have any sticking power at all, to be real laws, one could argue, they have to be good anywhere and at any time, including the Big Bang, the putative Creation. Which gives them a kind of transcendent status outside of space and time."
- "Dr. [Paul] Davies asserted...that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function."
- "Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. 'Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,' he said..."
- "Steven Weinberg...thinks the laws of nature are as real as 'the rocks in the field.' The laws seem to persist, he wrote, 'whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.'"
- "Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: 'A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.'"
Laws that have a "transcendent status outside space and time," which "rested on faith," that are just "monotheism without God," yet "as real as the rocks in the field," and that "nature obeys without exception"? This from agnostic and atheist scientists. Perhaps this is why Stephen Hawking — arguably the most famous scientist of our time, and an atheist — said in an interview with Diane Sawyer, "What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature." Indeed.
Here's a summary of the argument:
- If laws of nature exist, they are invisible, immaterial, immutable, infallible, omnipresent, omnipotent, transcendent, and eternal.
- If God exists, he is likewise invisible, immaterial, immutable, infallible, omnipresent, omnipotent, transcendent, and eternal.
- Because of their extreme similarity, any reason to believe laws of nature exist will also count as a reason to believe God exists.
- The regularity of the universe is a good reason to believe laws of nature exist.
- Therefore, the regularity of the universe is a good reason to believe God exists.
When you couple this with the fact that there are multiple independent reasons to believe God exists (e.g. the origin and contingency of the universe), it makes the conclusion all the more powerful. The regularity of the universe is indeed a compelling reason to believe in God!
1. The laws of nature have been tested scientifically, God's existence hasn't. It's not accurate to say the laws of nature have been tested scientifically — the laws themselves haven't, regularities have. The laws are invisible and immaterial, remember? It's only the effects (regularities) that we can actually study scientifically. Rather, scientists have postulated the existence of laws to explain and describe the regularities — a postulation that has brought great success. In so doing, however, scientists assume the existence of something remarkably similar to God, that even fills the same role as God (governing/sustaining the universe). Hence my conclusion: if it's rational to believe in the laws of nature, it is equally rational to believe in God.
2. The laws aren't rules of what must happen, they're merely descriptions of what always does happen. I completely agree! But why does it always happen? That's the point. There must be an explanation for the regularity of the universe (unless you want to just say its a coincidence, which seems lame). One answer is the laws of nature. Another answer is God. From what I've explained here, it appears those two answers aren't very different from each other.
3. The regularity of the universe doesn't have an explanation; it's merely a primitive "brute fact." You'll recall from my last post that anything contingent has an explanation in an outside source. The regularity of the universe is contingent; it could have been different than it is. It therefore has an explanation outside of itself. Moreover, given the wealth of evidence that the universe itself is contingent, you'd be hard-pressed to show that the regularity in the universe somehow isn't.
4. If God exists, then the laws of nature could be violated. But they can't be violated, so God doesn't exist. No, if God exists, he is the source of the laws of nature — they're not something outside of him that he must obey. Moreover, the laws themselves don't prohibit God from performing a miracle. Read my post in this series — Miracles (Part 1) — to see why.
5. The laws aren't eternal and immutable — they came into existence with the universe and change over time. While there is some evidence that some fundamental constants or quantities of our universe may have changed very slightly over time (see this interview with Davies, for example), it's not clear if that means an actual law has changed. After all, a constant and a law are two different things. Moreover, philosopher Marc Lange has argued that (1) it's actually impossible for laws of nature to change, and (2) even if the laws were temporary and changeable, many of them follow higher "meta-laws" of symmetry, which just pushes the problem back a step ("where did the meta-laws come from?").
6. The laws aren't universal and transcendent — they're local to our universe. There are many other universes, each with different laws. In his article, quoted at the beginning of this blog post, Paul Davies explains why this objection fails:
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
7. Quantum mechanics proves that the universe is random at its most basic level. "Random" is a misleading word here. "Non-deterministic" would be a more accurate description of the quantum world. That simply means the properties/behaviors of a specific particle, say an electron, can't be determined with certainty, only estimated with probability. "Random" tends to connote the idea of something being chaotic. If the universe were truly random in that sense, then we could never do any repeatable scientific experiments, since the results would be different every time. The fact that we can shows the universe is not fully random. Furthermore, if quantum mechanics "proves" the randomness of the universe, then why do the experiments of quantum mechanics have such predictable outcomes? Even if the quantum world were truly random/chaotic, it would not somehow explain away all the order and regularity that we see on the macro level. It would only make it more amazing and mysterious!
8. It is more rational to believe in the existence of invisible, immaterial laws of nature than to believe in an invisible, immaterial person (God). Why? If it's perfectly rational, and even considered "scientific," to believe in something immaterial, invisible, eternal, immutable, infallible, omnipresent, all-powerful, and transcendent, why is it suddenly irrational to add the attribute of personality to that list? Seems arbitrary to me. Stay tuned. In my next post, I'll explain why I believe the source of nature's regularity is personal and intelligent.
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*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!
1. Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), p. 17-18.
2. I am well aware that many philosophers (a la David Hume) deny that laws of nature exist in the sense that they "govern" anything. Rather, they would say that "laws" are merely true descriptions of the regularities in the universe. That is my own view, actually. But notice my argument does not require that laws really exist. It only requires that there be good reasons to believe they do. My argument is epistemological — it shows that if it is rational to believe laws of nature exist, then it is equally rational to believe God exists.